WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States faces an increased threat of attack from al Qaeda, which will likely try to use battle-hardened associates in Iraq to strike inside the United States, an intelligence report warned on Tuesday.
Released as the White House confronts mounting pressure in Congress to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, the document marked the first time that the 16-agency U.S. intelligence community has warned publicly that the Iraq war poses a near-term threat to the United States.
Democrats seized on the findings to say the administration has mishandled national security and the Iraq war, while U.S. President George W. Bush said U.S. pressure on al Qaeda had kept it from getting even stronger.
The two-page unclassified report was part of a classified national intelligence estimate delivered to Bush and Congress. It said al Qaeda’s affiliation with al Qaeda in Iraq is helping Osama bin Laden’s militant network recruit operatives.
“We assess that al Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al Qaeda in Iraq, its most visible and capable affiliate,” it stated.
The White House said there was no credible indication of an imminent attack, and the nation’s alert status was unchanged at an elevated level.
Intelligence officials also said there was no evidence of al Qaeda cells operating inside the United States.
“But the warning is clear, and we are taking it seriously,” said White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend.
Democrats said the report underscored Bush’s failings in the war on terrorism and America’s need to narrow its Iraq mission to confront al Qaeda there and elsewhere.
“The Bush administration’s national security strategy has failed in its most basic responsibility,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Republicans in Congress said it demonstrated the need to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and to maintain vigilance at home.
The threat from Al Qaeda has increased as the network responsible for the September 11 attacks has gained strength and become entrenched in remote northwestern Pakistan, intelligence officials said.
The safe haven has enabled bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, to regain some command abilities lost when U.S.-led forces drove them from Afghanistan in late 2001, officials said.
The report said al Qaeda remained “the most serious terrorist threat” to the United States, amid growing U.S. concerns that Europe and North Africa could provide transit points for militants seeking to enter the United States.
“As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment,” it said.
Bush said at the White House, “Al Qaeda is strong today, but they’re not nearly as strong as they were prior to September 11, 2001, and the reason why is, is because we’ve been working with the world to keep the pressure on, to stay on the offense.”
The Iraq war has long been seen by U.S. officials as an training ground for Islamist militants. But intelligence officials had previously said the threat was unlikely to spread to other countries until after the fighting stops and foreign militants return home.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has publicly pledged allegiance to bin Laden and is believed to have received strategic direction from top network officials in Pakistan.
Pentagon officials know it as the primary driver of sectarian violence in Iraq and the author of the war’s most spectacular attacks.
Bush and other top officials have argued that the Iraq war is protecting Americans by preventing militants from attacking the United States.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Kristin Roberts